What to know as severe weather season nears
Tornadoes can occur at any time of year, though they are most common in the spring – a point to be driven home Tuesday morning with the annual statewide tornado drill.
It’s the most visible part of Missouri’s annual Severe Weather Preparedness Week, which runs through Friday.
The National Weather Service and the State Emergency Management Agency have a wide range of suggestions to stay safe. Each day this week has a different emphasis:
• Monday: Receiving weather information and having a plan. Officials suggest having more than one source of severe weather information and suggest that a NOAA All-Hazards Weather Radio is a good investment. Smartphone apps can help, too.
More generally, the idea is to be “weather aware,” especially at times when hazardous weather such as severe thunderstorms can develop quickly.
A little bit of specific language matters, too. The Weather Service posts a watch when conditions are favorable for severe weather. In other words, look sharp. A Weather Service warning, however, means a bad storm is actually happening and has been confirmed by radar or a trained weather spotter. A warning means it’s time to take action such as heading to a safe space during a thunderstorm capable of producing tornadoes.
• Tuesday: Tornado safety. The Weather Service and SEMA will conduct the annual drill at 10 a.m. Local authorities will test outdoor alarms, and the Weather Service will activate the Emergency Alert System and air a weather radio alert. (Mild weather is expected in Missouri this week, but the drill would be pushed back to Thursday if there’s bad weather Tuesday.)
Schools, businesses and citizens are encouraged to do their part by reviewing their emergency plans.
In general, the safest place to get to during a tornado warning is a building’s lowest room without windows.
Emergency response managers stress that outdoor sirens are designed to be heard outdoors, not indoors. Indoor sounds such as a TV can easily drown out sirens, they say.
• Wednesday: Lightning. The Weather Service says 17 lightning-strike deaths were recorded in the United States in 2020, including one in Missouri. In St. Louis, a 28-year-old standing under a tree was struck and killed.
It’s not safe to be outside during a thunderstorm, and officials have been promoting the phrase “When the thunder roars, go indoors!”
A building or even a hard-topped metal vehicle offers protection. If that’s not available, avoid open areas and don’t be the tallest object in the area. Stay away from towers, utility poles and tall, isolated trees. Stay away from things that conduct electricity such as fences and wires.
• Thursday: Hail and wind. The Weather Service uses hail – an inch or larger, that is, quarter sizes – and/or winds of 58 mph or higher as measures of a severe thunderstorm.
• Friday: Flooding. SEMA calls flooding “the deadliest severe weather hazard in Missouri.” From 2015 through 2019, the agency says, 40 of the 50 flooding deaths in Missouri involved people in vehicles amid flash flooding. Nationwide, according to SEMA, flash flooding accounts for more deaths annually than tornadoes, lightning or hurricanes – about 140 a year.
Officials advise “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” meaning never driving into flood water, even if it appears shallow.